Author of Brahmaputra -The Story of Lachit Barphukan and Battles of the Maratha Empire. Contributed over thirty five articles to a history column in DNA newspaper. Aneesh's writing has also been published numerous times in Swarajya, IndiaFacts, TFI Post , Creative India, Springer Journal and others. He has given over thirty public talks mainly on Maratha and Assamese history notably at Pondy Lit Fest , Pune Lit Fest, INTACH Delhi, Wadia College in Pune , Thakur College in Mumbai and many other occasions. Also qualified to be a navigating officer on Merchant Ships.
When we speak of medieval Assam, Lachit Barphukan is perhaps the only name known to us, for his exploits against the Mughals. But the person who took Assam to its cultural and political zenith was a king named Rudra Singha, who ruled between 1696 and 1714 AD. He was from the Ahom dynasty which ruled Assam from 1228 to 1821 AD. Having ascended the throne, he had taken the Ahom name Chao Sukrungpha and almost immediately got down to building Assam into a prosperous kingdom. Numerous civil works were undertaken by him. The Joysagar, said to be India’s largest man-made tank with an area of 318 acres, was constructed during his reign. In a significant break from traditional Ahom architecture, which made heavy use of mud, bamboo and wood, Rudra Singha built solid stone structures. The Namdang Stone Bridge, which connects the eastern towns of Shibsagar and Jorhat, is another example. Built in the early eighteenth century, it was incorporated as part of National Highway 37 and continued to carry modern vehicles till a few years ago. Its heritage value was finally recognised some years ago and now a new road has been built.Various administrative buildings were constructed at Rangpur, the new capital of the kingdom. The king also built a number of temples, such as the Shiva Doul and Gauri Doul. He established various Satras and also gave royal patronage to the Bihu festival. He also sent young boys to Benares to study. Rudra Singha’s planned invasion of Mughal Bengal is perhaps his greatest claim to fame. Hindu kings who dreamt of going beyond their territories are few and far between. The reasons for this planned invasion are not very clear. Historian SK Bhuyan says various reasons can be attributed, such as Mughal officials sending him a khillat and Hindu pilgrims being harassed in Bengal. One must understand that Rudra Singha was a great patron o f Hinduism and the coins minted in his name contained the words “shri shrimadvengar deva rudra simhasya” and “shri shri haragauri padambuja madhukarasya”. The Tungukhia Buranji, a contemporary source, states that Rudra Singha held an assembly where he declared his intention to invade the region between Rangmati and Dhaka. Dhaka, at the time, was an important Mughal city in Bengal. Another reason could be that being a devotee of Shiva, he wanted to include a part of river Ganges into his domain. Meticulous preparations for this grand invasion were done. The neighbouring kingdoms such as the Jayantia and Cachar joined him. The Koch ruler Rup Narayan also sent favourable replies. He ruled over what is today’s region of Cooch Behar in North Bengal. He solicited support from the Hindu zamindars of Burdwan and Barnagar in Bengal. Closer to Guwahati, alliances were stitched with neighbouring kingdoms — Rajas of Morung, Bana-Vishnupur and Nadiya. For the first time, diplomatic relations were opened with Tripura and help was sought regarding the grand invasion of Mughal territories. Thus, Rudra Singha, in a short span of time, united all the tribes and kingdoms of the North East and a huge army of 4 lakh soldiers began to gather at Guwahati. Assam had a glorious tradition of beating back invaders for over 400 years. Rudra Singha intended to pay the invaders in their own coin. At this critical juncture, Rudra Singha, on whom the whole campaign rested, died a sudden death in 1714. His death is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of Indian history. With a Mughal Empire on its last legs, who knows how much success would have come Rudra Singha’s way. In the context of the capitulation of Bengal in 1757, could a strong king have perhaps prevented a British entry? His death leaves us only with conjectures. Thus, Rudra Singha was a multifaceted personality, an able king who excelled at diplomacy, politics and warfare. At the same time, he patronised art and religion, and gave a great fillip to art and architecture during his reign. Assam achieved great heights in the realm of art, architecture, civil works, as well as military prowess during his reign.
A piping hot cup of tea is something we routinely drink and also offer any and every guest. In fact, it is so common a courtesy, that not being offered a cup of tea would seem rude to many people! Let us see how tea began it’s journey in the jungles of Assam as a wild plant plucked by a tribe for it’s aroma , and grew into a cash crop involving plantations of hundreds of acres!
The Ahom dynasty of Assam managed to stave off invaders for upwards of four hundred years from 1228 to 1671. There were no more invasions after the Mughal invasion under Ram Singh was soundly defeated in the famous Battle of Saraighat by Lachit Barphukan.
This battle is extremely unique in India’s history – fought not on land or the sea but in the middle of a river . The mighty Brahmaputra was the theatre of this Mughal – Assam showdown. Saraighat was the final grand climax to a series of events stretching over several years. This blog of mine –> Lachit Barphukan , gives a detailed description of events leading to Battle of Saraighat.
I do not intend to repeat them here. Instead, in this article I shall throw light upon the Ahom naval system and further more , try and understand the challenges that must have been faced while fighting on that mass of water , drawing on my knowledge of how boats and ships behave in a river.
The Ahom Naval System :
The biggest plus point of the Ahom dynasty and its long history of successfully defending the Brahmaputra valley was that they were not personality driven , but policy driven. Keeping invaders west of the Manas river was something all rulers aimed for. Further more , the paik system ensured that each family in the Brahmaputra valley compulsorily contributed men to the army when so demanded. There were then khels or guilds for various activities – both military and civil. This was the agreed upon system , and the monarch or swargdeo had thousands at his beck and call at any given time. The military followed a set heirarchy of ranks – from the Deka controlling 10 paiks to the Phukan lording over 6000.
Thus defense of the land was not according to whims and fancy of sundry jagirdars and watandars. When a dynamic personality like Lachit Barphukan was added to this , the Ahom military system became near invincible in face of great adversity.
Secondly, the Ahoms made excellent use of the terrain and developed perhaps India’s only “river specific” navy ! It is one thing to have certain terrain around you , something else to harness it fully. Today in 2016 you will be hard pressed to count twenty boats plying the waters near Guwahati , but back in 1663 , the official Mughal waqnavis counted 32,000 boats as having passed the town in one month ! Inside out knowledge of the terrain was what made the guerilla warfare highly effective and deadly. Infact , they called it “Daga Yuddha” ! An extremely apt name for the kind of warfare .
The Ahom Navy :
The Ahom navy was overall led by the Pani Phukan . Even towards the close of the Ahom dynasty this rank held sway over 7000 sailors ! Smaller units operated under the Bar Neogs . The Pani Phukan was directly under the Barphukan – the supreme leader of the armed forces . The Barphukan could assume control of the naval forces too – as happened in the Battle of Saraighat with telling effect.
Like in the infantry arm , various departments were created even for the river navy arm.
The Naobachia Phukan was in charge of supplying able bodied boatmen . While the Naosaliya Phukan was tasked with upkeep of boat building and the docks. He had around ten docks under him for boat building purposes. These being at Gargaon , Guwahati , Dergaon etc .
Renowned historian Sir JN Sarkar has quoted Guwahati , Sadiya , Dikhowmukh , Kaliabor , Sadiya etc. as places where boat building yards were set up. Infact , one of the docks used for repairing / building boats during time of the Ahom dynasty can still be seen in Guwahati – popular now as ” Dighali Phukuri ” and developed as a lake – cum – park.
Another important facet of fighting on the water was development of a structure known as the well , the ” Pani garh ” . It was essentially the art of building a bastion or gadhi in the middle of the water without recourse to using an already existing island etc .
Summarizing historian PC Sarma’s words in the book “Martial Traditions of the North East ” , we can say —
The Pani garh consisted of first planting stout bamboo poles into the river banks on opposite sides and then joining them loosely with ropes made of Raidongia Bet a kind of coir stronger than jute. After this , platforms of timber would be floated onto the river , improvised upon by soldiers and builders , to function like floating “dam damas” or small siege towers. Boats could also be used in lieu of wooden platforms.
There is evidence that such a blockage effected during the Battle of Saraighat proved to be very effective. HK Barpujari gives a similar description of such “floating” bastions.
Ahom Warboats – What were they made of ? How large were they ?
They were known as “bacchhari ” boatsand had a single plank of wood to give strength to the keel or base of the boat. Something similar to how ship’s are strengthened today too !
The Ahom warboats were small , not only by today’s standards but by 17th century standards also. At a time when ships of an average length of 50 metre (150 feet) were plying the high seas, the Ahom warboats measured only about 20 metre (60 feet) . Their width was also scarce – just about 2-3 metres (7 feet) But there were sound reasons for this , and as we shall see in the next section, size proved critical in the Battle of Saraighat.
The Ahom boats were made of chambal type of wood. The advantage being that a boat constructed of this wood would not sink even if heavily burdened. Thus an Ahom warboat was able to carry loads upto thirty tons. Which would usually mean a mixture of soldiers and artillery pieces , as seen in “Battle of Saraighat” picture above. Historian UN Gohain says that Ajhar (Lagerstroemia reginoe) and Sam (Artocar-fins chaplasha) were the specific trees whose wood was used to build the Ahom boats. Planks were joined by nails and gaps filled with a mixture of resin , lac and bee wax. Also lime made of snail shells and jaggery was used for any repairs. A well constructed boat could last upto ten years or more.
The boat described here was the large 60 feet war boat. Ones equipped with guns were called ” Hiloi Chara Nao ” . Apart from this , a variety of other boats were in use –
Chara Nao – For travelling and transport
Magari Nao – Decorative boats
Tulunga Nao – For fishing activities
Gerap Nao , Garami Nao – used in battles
Gach Nao – A huge warboat used by Mughals . Extremely slow and cumbersome in a river.
Such and twenty other type of boats for various purposes were prevalent in Assam !
Artillery on boats :
Simply having boats with people on them was not good enough. They needed to have them stocked with artillery too. Make gun – boats that is . Infact the Mughal invasion of Assam could well be called a case of failed “gun boat diplomacy” . Gun boats and armadas were extensively used by British empire to brow beat smaller nations into submission. Hence the adage.
These guns were cast , and much smaller in size than the land based cannons. Infact they more closely resembled the zamburak than the larger tof . A few samples can still be seen in the museum at Guwahati , they are 2 -3 feet long at best.
The Battle of Saraighat – An analysis.
Having seen what the Ahom navy consisted of , we shall now turn to the Battle of Saraighat – the acid test of all these Ahom military systems. Lachit Barphukan’s choice of chosing Guwahati to make a decisive stand against the Mughals had sound strategy behind it.
The Brahmaputra is at it’s narrowest at Guwahati. Thus , defending the river there was akin to defending a pass. Further more , the sudden narrowing would also cause an increase in the speed of the water. Thus , the Mughals, approaching from downstream would have to strain more.
The preference for small boats was also well thought out. Ram Singh went in with 40 huge war boats. In a naval battle on the sea , Ram Singh would have won. But in the river , the ships proved too cumbersome to turn and maneuver. Infact , the Mughal boats – each equipped with sixteen huge guns and manned with the cream of Mughal and European sailors in India, were winning the initial part of the battle. Lachit Barphukan’s illness had meant that the Ahom boats did not leverage their size and mobility in absence of a good leader and were fast getting blown apart. Which is why Lachit Barphukan’s entry into the battle is a crucial turning point.
The smaller boats , hence smaller guns meant that the Ahoms would have had to move close to the huge Mughal warboats. This , especially due to the speed of the water , would have drawn the smaller boats into the larger – a phenomenon known as interaction. That the boats were deftly steered shows the capabilities of people controlling them. Also , when the guns , whether they fired from Ahom or Mughal boats , would have also caused considerable movement of the boat – rocking it violently one side to another. Another aspect to bear in mind when going through this battle.
The river was choc a bloc with boats during the battle – which would have made life for the Mughals even more difficult.
And the end result was a resounding Ahom victory under leadership of Lachit Barphukan
Purchase Aneesh Gokhale’s book on Lachit Barphukan at Amazon Kindle
Why have I chosen to write a book on Lachit Barphukan ? A person largely unknown outside his native Assam ?
I had chanced upon an Amar Chitra Katha (comic book series on various personalities) on Lachit Barphukan around fifteen years ago. The Assamese warrior valiantly fought against the Mughal empire. What really spiked my interest were the similarities between the Assamese and Maratha warriors of those days – Lachit Barphukan being a contemporary of the great Shivaji Maharaj. The undying patriotism , willingness to set right historical wrongs and the bravery needed to stand up to a huge empire. The ability of Lachit Barphukan to rally his men to the common cause of freedom and the exquisite use of men , resources and terrain to achieve this aim are further similarities . Thus , Lachit Barphukan of Assam is an immensely inspirational figure. Unfortunately , he is totally unknown outside the North East , although his exploits had made Aurangzeb take notice. Hence , I decided to write a book on this great persona .
Research for the book was not easy. There is lot more material readily available on the Marathas and Mughals than on the Ahoms (rulers of Assam from 1206 to 1826). I undertook a trip to Guwahati for this purpose. I Visited the places where mighty battles were fought between the Ahoms and the Mughals. Took in the scenery and imagined how would it have been back in the 17th century. The crowded bookstores of Pan Bazaar proved extremely useful , leading me to books I would never have found otherwise.I am extremely greatful to all who helped me in this.
The average Assamese talks with great pride about Lachit Barphukan.Even the receptionist at the Assam Bhavan in Navi Mumbai broke into a broad smile on the mention of Lachit’s name. They have the same adulation for him , that Maharashtrians have for Shivaji.
A note on comparing Shivaji and Lachit Barphukan here. While there are many similarities in their personalities , there are also some fundamental differences . Primarily , Shivaji was a king and Barphukan was a senapati or commander. Their backgrounds were very different.Hence I would desist from literal comparisons. Having said that , both were immensely inspirational and both fought for their people and the Indic way of life. Many names familiar to Marathi readers crop up in Assam’s history – Aurangzeb , Shaiste Khan , Mir Jumla , Diler Khan , Ram Singh etc . This book also touches upon these little known connections .
In this book, I have used the word Assamese to denote the general people and troops on the army. The word Ahom has been used to denote the ruling dynasty and their courtiers, commanders which were dominated by this race.
Lets begin the journey then in 1663 A.D at Gargaon in Eastern Assam with the Assamese under the Mughals. Their land destroyed , their temples broken and their king being made to bow to a humiliating treaty …..
Jayadhwaj Singha, king of the Ahoms, was wearing the ochre coloured robes of a simple soldier. His sword, a weapon with a long hilt and a straight blade called a heng dang which denoted his royal stature was missing, and his arms had been covered with cuts and bruises. Tears trickled down his face, mingling with the constant drizzle. He was glad that no one could see his tear stained face, but there was no escaping the lump in his throat which felt heavy and gnawed at his very soul. He turned his gaze to his left, to a little mound jutting out of the third. It was a burial vault of one of his ancestors. The burial vault was an echo of his ancient Tai Ahom tribal religion of Fralung – much of which had been given up by the Ahoms. But the age old Fralung practise of burying the dead along with the deceased person’s possessions and treasures had stood the test of time and a fast changing civilisation. Jayadhwaj Singha’s heart ached as he saw the Mughal soldiers attack the burial vault with pick axes, hammers, shovels and swords. Fury raged in his eyes. But there was little he could do about it.
Far above him, the dark dank clouds converged into an ugly black mass, adding to the gloominess already enveloping the Ahom king. He looked away as the Mughal soldiers began looting the sacred burial vaults of his forefathers. His gaze turned to the east, where two huge black stallions towered above the landscape, reaching into the grey skies. Grotesque in shape and gigantic in size with eyes that seemed empty and lifeless. Astride one was a colossal figure with a white beard and high cheekbones. He was wearing the rich robes of a Mughal noble and a richly adorned pagdi, watching the Mughal soldiers go about defiling the burial vault. On the stallion beside him, was a wicked looking man sitting in the saddle. He too wore the exquisite robes of a Mughal noble. Fair of skin and with cold and cruel eyes, his samsher hung from his cummerbund, still stained with blood. His Afghan turban rested easily on his head, with an end dangling carelessly over his shoulder. Jayadhwaj Singha recognised the two as Mir Jumla and Diler Khan – Mughal sardars who had tormented the Ahoms. Suddenly he heard a little girl crying. He turned around, only to see his own daughter of six years, standing there, clutching her rag doll. What was she doing there? In the midst of the Mughal soldiers and those two Mughal sardars he wondered? He felt someone was looking at him, and turned around to find Mir Jumla glaring at him, with cold, unfeeling eyes.
“The Ahom king must no longer even look at his own daughter. She belongs to the Mughal harem now” the figure on the ugly black stallion bellowed. The cruel conditions of the treaty he had signed at Gilijharighat came back flooding to Jayadhwaj Singha ….
“Aaah…” said Jayadhwaj Singha and awoke with a start. He could feel his heart pounding. Sweat trickled down his forehead. Outside, the cold, dark night stretched into the distance. The unnerving silence pervading everything being broken only by the rhythmic chirping of crickets. Jayadhwaj Singha’s breathing was heavy. All the horrors of the past few months had been brought alive in one cruel nightmare. Tears welled up in his eyes as he remembered his daughter, a mere child of six years, now in the Mughal harem. He mutterd to himself, asking for her forgiveness. The frightening images of the Mughal soldiers danced before his eyes. And what good was he? He had heard whispers that the people were calling him “bhagodiya raja” for having abandoned his capital of Gargaon and sought shelter in the hills of Namrup to the east. But how was he to explain that the arduous journey to the small village of Bakata was also for his people alone – to regroup his armies and inspire them to fight the Mughals once again. The Ahom king coughed loudly and felt a liquid thud into his hands. The commotion woke up his wife, who rushed towards her husband. Jayadhwaj Singha coughed again and blood splattered onto his simple white clothes. His wife frantically called for the vaidyas and deodhais. Attendants rushed about in panic. Jayadhwaj Singha knew his end was near. He felt drained and spent, both physically and emotionally. With a voice barely audible and symptomatic of the great pain he was in, he whispered to his wife “Send for my cousin, Supungmung” He said the words in great pain.
“Quickly, rush to his camp across the stream and bring him here. Tell him to reach here as soon as possible” his wife shouted, her voice having more than a hint of panic.
“He will rule after me … Supungmung… tell him so….” Jayadhwaj Singha’s breathing was heavy as he spoke. His queen was crying, her tears streaming down her face and staining them. She held Jayadhwaj Singha’s hand, hoping for a miracle. The vaidyas and deodhais frantically brought herbs and potions for the king, but with every passing minute, Jayadhwaj Singha’s condition only worsened. He coughed once again, staining the white clothes of the deodhai a deep red. Then suddenly the hand went limp, and Jayadhwaj Singha’s heart stopped beating forever….
Few reviews of ” Brahmaputra – The Story of Lachit Barphukan, Assamese contemporary of Chhatrapati Shivaji.” written by readers
Book available for Purchase from Amazon India
1) By Melroy Pinto , Goa
First of all let me congratulate you on doing something many have dreamed of (including me) but have never succeeded – Publishing a book.
Let’s start by judging the book by its cover. The name ‘Brahmaputra’ conjures a picture of the exotic and the unknown, and is an excellent choice. A lot has been written about the Ganges, but the Brahmaputra remains a mystery. The colours used are well balanced and the picture of the sea battle piques the curiosity of the reader. I would also like to mention here that the choice of font used for the name is perfect. I’m glad you didn’t use the commonplace Hinglish Font (English letters written in the devnagiri style). I wonder if there was a reason for off-centering the author’s name. All in all I would give the cover a 10/10.
History was a boring subject for me in school, however the Brahmaputra has been written like a bestseller and hence I couldn’t put it down till I had finished it. I had not heard of Lachit Barphukan before and hence the stories were new to me. The style of writing is easy reading, with a good flow of thought, and a good command of the language. A word of caution, avoid repetitive clichés for eg. Cut, maimed, stabbed, which I recollect was used at least 4 times in the narrative.
The Glossary at the end was a big help, however some more words need to be included e.g. Phukan, Chor bacchas, Swargdeo etc.
What I would liked to have seen included was a map of the area, so I could understand the terrain, how the Brahmaputra flowed and where the battles took place.
Lachit Barphukan comes across as a great military leader who with his small army defeated the mighty armies of the Mughuls and the the Rajputs. This could have only been achieved by using a lot of military strategy. Unfortunately you have not delved much into the strategy involved.
The hero is referred to as Borphukan in all references on the internet. What is the reason you refer to him as Barphukan?
I liked the way you have laced the book with stories of Shivaji, without losing track of the plot.
I hope you look at my critical appreciation in a positive way. The book is an excellent job especially considering it is your first work. Assam is very lucky to have someone from right across the country come and give them a book on their legend. I hope your next work will be about someone from Goa.
All the best.
2. Godwin Joseph – Kerala , India
Just completed reading BRAHMAPUTRA. I thought it would be good to give a review here.
I dont think myself to be a person fit for commenting upon the way of writing of Mr. Aneesh Gokhale. But as a proud Indian, I would certainly comment upon the nationalistic spirit infused through this book.
For years, we Indians were taught by our pseudo-secular historians as a race which was subjugated by the foreigners. But no one told us the real history where our brave leaders like Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Rana Pratap or Krishnadevraya who defeated the invaders and regained the honour of our motherland. The Turks, Afghans and the Mughals (the Uzbek barbarians) are praised by these “secularists”.Thankfully, this book is so good as it is written from the standpoint of a nationalist Indian.
Lachit Barphukan. I was so ashamed that I was not aware of this glorious epoch in our history. Assam was always ignored by our historians. But this book provides a vivid picture of 17th century India. The writer has also done really well to show the exploits of Shivaji in his book – the daring raid on Shaista Khan in Pune. It was also so good to read on the politics in the Mughal court.
I would give 4.9/5 for this book. One more request to Aneesh. I am dying to read your first book – Sahyadris to Hindukush. Wonderful work.
4. Anurag Nath – Tezpur , Assam
When one reads this exhilariting and detailed piece of history, very skillfully wriiten and beautifully presented in this book, he or she goes into the beautiful diverse land of the assamese ruled by its ahom dynasty; very sparcely known outside NE. Every patriotic indian should read this book. Special thanks to Aneesh Gokhale.